Sunday, March 30, 2014

Routeburn Redux

Back in my mid-teens, growing up on the edge of the Waitakeres in West Auckland, I got interested in tramping. One summer I and my friend Peter planned a multi-day trip on the Coromandel. Sounded good to us, but my father had a quiet word to relatives who actually knew something about tramping, and decided that letting two 15 year olds head into the Coromandel wilderness (where a scout party had recently disappeared for several days and only survived by consuming their scarf woggles) wasn't a good idea. The upshot was an invitation (I suspect with some auntly arm twisting) to join my cousin Jo's university tramping group on the Greenstone - Routeburn circuit.

I'd decided to celebrate my retirement by doing the Routeburn again. As an afterthought, I contacted some friends who I thought might be around Queenstown after we got out from the tramp. These were old tramping mates, veterans of high alpine crossings and Himalayan adventures, so I was a bit apologetic to admit that in my decriptude I'd descended to the ignominy of a "Great Walk". To my surprise I got replies saying "can we come too?"

So March found six of us in Queenstown waiting for the shuttle at Info+Track, along with a mini UN of hikers - the babble around the piles of packs warned me that Das lingua de un Great Walk n'est pas Anglický. Back in 1965 the only way to reach the Routeburn was by the Earnslaw steamer, then a working boat - passengers included a herd of cows on the bottom deck. 2014 found us being whisked up the Lake in a shuttle bus, across the Dart Bridge to the Routeburn Road end, with an optional stop at Bennetts Bluff to photograph the blue bird day view up to Mt Earnslaw.
Wakatipu and Earnslaw from Bennett's Bluff
The Routeburn road end hut had been the finish of the 1965 trip, with tea and scones laid on by the coach company that took us down to the Kinloch wharf. Now you provide your own lunch at the Routeburn road end shelter (which recently won an architectural award). Interestingly DOCs "pack in - pack out" rubbish policy extends to the road end, a point missed by tourists who'd left neat piles of rubbish on the bench of the toilet block.
Routeburn Shelter
Routeburn beech forest
My planning strategy for the trip had been "short days - if there's a hut, book it" so we only had a couple of hours steadily climbing the old bridle path through the beech to Routeburn Flats hut, leaving plenty of daylight to admire Mt Somus at the head of the North Routeburn from the artfully placed bar stools.

Routeburn Raspberries
Culinary standards had improved since 1965. Marg had bought a cask of wine for the first couple of days, but over hummus dips we eyed the climb up to Routeburn Falls and made a logistical decision that in the interest of weight savings the Pinot should be used up on the first night. The hut raspberry bush provided garnish for the cheesecake, so after admiring the moon rise we retired to bed. A stomach upset punctuated the night for a couple of us, but rest of us slept well and were able to appreciate the misty dawn flats.

On the climb up to Routeburn Falls we met the guided walk coming down, including a gentleman in full Scottish regalia of sporran and kilt, his chest bearing a metal plate proclaiming him to be the "Knight Errant of the Grand Traverse". Unfortunately the etiquette separating guided from freedom walkers meant that I was reluctant to quiz him about the background to his get up.

By lunch time we'd made it to Routeburn Falls - in 1965 just a rocky promontory with a good view, but now a hut complex that probably has more bed nights than many New Zealand towns, and over a summer consumes a tonne of LPG and generates five tonnes of sewage.
Routeburn Falls, 1965
Routeburn Falls, 2014
First priority on getting to the hut was finding bunks. When I was a teenager a top bunk was an exciting prospect - now the priority was getting a bottom bunk for aged limbs and night time toilet trips. A DOC design oversight that excluded natural light from the bunk rooms made locating bunks a game of blind mans bluff.  But the deck offered a great view down the valley for our lunch.

Overlooking Routeburn falls is a small hill which despite its unassuming name of "1224" on the map, made a satisfying afternoon objective, and seemed to have achieved the "I heart" seal of approval.

Back at the hut, groups clustered around stoves preparing dinner. While I prepared our desert by whacking a packet of  maltesers with a full water bottle (the full recipe is available on receipt of a stamped addressed envelope....) a refugee from one group struck up a conversation "Our group's got very competitive - the guy tonight is doing beef medallions in red wine sauce! It's getting out of hand - I've had enough, I'm doing day 4, and it's going to be dehy!"

Next morning the weather stayed fine as we walked up the tussock flats, then climbed to the Lake Harris sidle, but wisps of cloud drifted across the lake, and when we rounded a bluff, Harris Saddle was enclosed in mist.
Lake Harris 2014

Harris Saddle, 1965
We headed up Conical Hill, I more slowly than the others. I must have looked tired, since every descending walker felt they had to encourage me with "the view is worth it" which started to sound like a broken record. But sure enough, on top we could see Tutoko and Madeline rearing up above the cloud filled Hollyford valley.
Conical Hill
Descending, we met a guided party heading up into the thickening mist "For God's sake, tell them there's a chance of a view" pleaded one of the guides.

After lunch in the shelter, we followed the sidle track up the Hollyford Valley, occasionally getting below the cloud with glimpses of the river flats. Since we'd crossed the divide from East to West in the southern alps the landscape was now rawer and wilder. Doff and Neil pointed out the rock bivi where they'd stayed last time, now verboten since camping is prohibited within 500m of a Great Walk.

I trailed behind as we made the long series of zig zags down to Lake McKenzie, but arrived in time to join the others, and a couple of paradise ducks, for a swim in the lake, debating whether or not it was colder than Wellington Harbour.

A feature of Great Walks is the obligatory warden's hut talk, which can range from a diatribe about the unsavoury objects that have had to be removed from the toilet system that day, to interesting background about the human and natural history of the area. Evan's talk was about his effort to bring birds back to the Routeburn - when he realised how few birds were in the bush along the trail, he started a predator trapping programme, with donations from trampers - each evening talk buys a few more traps. A great initiative, although an indication of how under resourced DOC is that predator control on a major track is essentially dependent on voluntary contributions.

Before heading for Howden Hut the next day, we followed the trail up the lake to Split Rock, a large boulder that cracked down the middle when it fell from the mountainside. Now trampers can walk through the crack, and tree roots are starting to enclose the rock, making it reminiscent of the jungle smothered temples of Cambodia.
Split Rock
Ta Prohm, Cambodia, 2004
At 10am precisely, the drone of sight seeing planes on their way to Milford Sound started up. I was eerily reminded of the classic battle of Britain movie sound track of bombers heading for their targets, and half expected a hidden loudspeaker in the trees to chime in with a Churchillian sound bite.

By Earland Falls the temperature had cooled enough to discourage most of us from swimming, but Marg couldn't resist the chance to refresh herself under a 174m shower.

In 1965 after a wet and tiring day up the Greenstone we were glad to get to Howden for a brew of billy tea. The hut has expanded since 1965, and the inside is no longer lined with building paper.
Howden Hut, 1965
The classic lake view is still there though, making a photo that tourists have been taking since at least the early 1900s, and which appears in the Moir's Guidebook that my father and uncle used on the Routeburn in the 1930s.
Lake Howden, Moir's Guidebook 1925
Lake Howden, 2014
We headed up to Key Summit for the views across to the Darrens and down the Eglinton, though the sense of isolation was challenged by the crowds who had walked in from the Te Anau Milford road.
Key Summit
Masterchef has a lot to answer for. On the hut veranda yet another competitive culinary creation was setting, the cook having carried plastic wine glasses for three days along with the ingredients for Crème brûlée.

The standard Routeburn track route heads out to the Milford - Te Anau road from Howden, but we'd decided to make our way back to Lake Wakatipu via the Caples valley.

Weather in 1965 was just something that happened - you looked out the window to see it. Now 8:30am is weather time - the warden emerges from a radio seance with DOC central, and posts the forecast on a whiteboard.
Warden Phil breaks the news - it's raining
We were a bit envious of a group that had anticipated the pluviality with golf umbrellas, and wended their way up to McKellar Pass like an advancing column of toadstools.

The cool rain encouraged us to keep going with minimal stops to cover the 20km to Mid-Caples hut, and made good time on the track, now a digger-built highway cutting a swathe through the beech forest.  As we came clear of the divide, the rains eased and we'd dried and warmed by the time we arrived at the newly opened hut.

It was a short last day down to join the Greenstone. Grazing cattle roamed the flats, an occasional flock of mohua twittered in the trees, and a bush robin posed in return for a boot scrape on the track to reveal juicy insect treats. So we were back to the 1965 starting point - instead of the Earnslaw at the wharf, our pre-ordered shuttle bus was waiting to whisk us back to Queenstown.
Greenstone road end, 1965
Greenstone road end 2014
After the 1965 trip I got a newspaper and (being the days before privacy principles) found my School Certificate results. At Queenstown Airport Marg made a beeline for an ATM and checked the balance - my first Government Super payment had gone in.

More photos on Flickr.